For the Birds Radio Program: August

Original Air Date: Aug. 8, 2002

Birds are on the move. Laura talks about what we should be looking for.

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August is a peculiar month in the world of birds. It is quiet after the rush of song in May, June, and early July, yet it always seems to bring unexpected delights to birders. Some species are in full migration right now-shorebirds and male hummingbirds are steadily moving south. But some other species are going through a more bewildering seasonal movement. This time of year, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher might wander our way, or White-faced Ibis, Rufous Hummingbird, or some other vagrant from the south that wends its way north after the breeding season. When we find migrating Bald Eagles this time of year, they’re more likely to be southern eagles from Florida that wandered north after the breeding season than our own northern eagles headed south already.

Many birds are replenishing their bodies after the demands of reproduction and molting, and stoking up their fat reserves to prepare for migration and cold weather ahead. Some parent birds are already leaving their young, usually moving on to ensure that babies unable to migrate for several more weeks will have enough food. If adult loons kept fishing in the lakes where they raised their babies, there’d be a greater chance of depleting their nesting lakes of fish before their young had long enough wing feathers to support their bodies in flight. So adults usually move out of nesting lakes as soon as the babies are successfully fishing on their own. It will take baby loons at least a few more weeks before they can leave their birthplace, but even without their parents to guide them, they’ll instinctively know what to do and where to go.

Right now the northland abounds in insects and fruits, and Cedar Waxwings are pigging out on both. We can watch them voraciously feeding on berries and then sally forth from bare tree branches to snatch flying insects in mid-air. Their sleepy snoring calls are one of the most comforting of August sounds.

Chickadees are still in small family groups, which will soon be breaking up so the chickadees can join their winter feeding flocks. Interestingly, just about every baby will go to a different winter flock from its siblings. Every autumn, chickadees allow some of their brain neurons to die and be replaced, so their limited memory space won’t be wasted on information that is outdated. Apparently to minimize the probability of siblings forgetting that they’re related and forming pair bonds with brothers or sisters, the birds go their separate ways before that can happen.

I was in Wayzata, down by the Twin Cities, on a cool, pleasant morning at the end of July, and saw dozens of warblers flitting about in migratory flocks along the lakeshore. Warblers spend most of their day feeding in loose flocks, but usually remain within the foliage so they aren’t evident unless you’re paying attention. By night they’re starting to move, using celestial navigation to stay on track. Their movements will be more dramatic in September, but now is really the time to start paying attention if you want to learn your fall warblers, while we have the greatest variety. If you’re out at night looking at August meteor showers or northern lights, listen for little call notes in the sky. I don’t know how to identify most warblers down to species by their flight calls, but somehow just knowing the night sky is flowing with migrating birds fills me with joy and wonder.